Why do some countries struggle with soft power?

December 02, 2022 14:29
Photo: Reuters

Soft power – the sum total of state capacity, influence, and impact, that can be attributed to predominantly the cultural, ideological, and discursive might of the state, as manifested through its ability to win and transform hearts and minds of decision-makers and publics beyond its own borders.

Soft power – an antidote, complement, and associated counterpart to hard power, but rarely the direct product or indirect derivative of the latter: as defined by military or economic prowess qua quality and quantity of the army and the economy.

Why do some countries struggle with soft power, whilst others thrive? When reflecting upon the outpour of grief and pathos over the Queen’s passing in September, I was inevitably struck by the realisation – that for all its defects and moral ignominy, Britain had long excelled with its soft power. Call it a firm grip over the media apparatus; call it long-standing advantages and wherewithal when it comes to its academic and cultural institutions, or – as I’d like to call a spade a spade – a fundamentally savvy and well-trained understanding of human psychology.

Many other countries around the world, unfortunately, do not possess the same. There are at least three core issues that drag down the soft power of states – even large, potent countries that have long resorted to their economic prowess and magnitudes as a means of winning favours and support from smaller counterparts across the world.

The first, constitutes the stymying of organic, private, civil society efforts at engaging in cultural production and preservation. By extension, it is also the masses – and not the state – that have often been most successful in disseminating a humanistic, personable, and realistic story of their own country. The heterogeneity of needs, interests, and backgrounds of the masses, is what makes for the intrigue of any nation – not the mundane inanities of bureaucrats, or the edicts passed down from top to bottom, only to be regurgitated by state apparatus or their quasi-equivalents.

Culture thrives best through debate, experimentation, and bricolage. A successful culture thus stems from far more than carefully stipulated state prerogatives and hubristic slogans championing unidimensional stories about the country. It is in the genius and wisdom of the people that those abroad – including audiences intrigued by the rituals and festivals, goods and products (as opposed to the politics), but also otherwise skeptical crowds who are consigned and have been exposed to stereotypes about the countries – that shall serve to illuminate the international understanding and imagination of the country. By tightening the grip over civil society, by policing those who are seen as deviants from the orthodox, states that prize themselves for their ability to mold their cultural images, could well end up counterproductively sabotaging their leverage over overseas audiences. For all their virtues, bureaucrats make for pretty awful cultural innovators and entrepreneurs.

Then there is the perennial question of audience. Soft power is something that must be received and acknowledged – unlike hard military power, measured in terms of weapon capacity or firing range, or, indeed, the ‘Yugeness’ of it all (thanks, Donald J Trump), soft power is a socially embedded and constitutive measure. It measures the psychological and perceptual reactions of audiences towards iterative gestures and signals; it tracks the ability of governments – even of small or medium states – to alter and shape the beliefs and value systems of external populations, without having such efforts coming across as “sharp power” (e.g. overt manipulation or cooptation).

Soft power is vastly diminished by the failure to communicate with one’s audience – or, rather, getting one’s audience wrong. If the intention is to persuade external audiences of the merits and value in one’s culture, political system, and ideology, the solution should correspondingly reflect that. The language adopted, the rhetoric embraced, and the very tones and pitches employed, should vary from audience to audience (with the possibility of context collapse being a risk that must be managed, but not avoided altogether); should be contextually sensitive, and, fundamentally, outcome-oriented. Intimidating, patronising, or downright ‘bluffing’ one’s way out of potential confrontations with unsympathetic audiences, does not allow for the building-up of much sympathy or recognition on the part of the public.

Far better, and more effective, would be learning to speak in the language – norms, values, priors, and justificatory frameworks – of one’s audience. Listen to them. Engage with them as peers. Hear them out and let them lend you their voices – as opposed to dismissing any and all divergence from your lines to take as “violations” of your stance and core interests. One would think these are pretty straightforward maxims to adopt – but unfortunately, in an age where political purity and ideological rigidity are rewarded as opposed to eschewed, we are no longer seeing the kind of tactful, debonair diplomacy that had been pursued by key players involved in the Cold War, per both the two superpowers, or members of the Non-Alignment Movement.

Respect is given, not begged for. Soft power is earned, not forced. Fighting the right battles when we should, is key. But winning battles without fighting – that, as Sun Tzu notes, now THAT is an artform of the highest order.

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Assistant Professor, HKU